When Aesop Rock first emerged on the independent rap scene in the late ’90s, the underground vastly differed from its current standing. Self-styled soldiers in the war against the materialist mainstream, independent artists doubled as political and social reactionaries. Self-righteous and indignant, “underground” equated to an artistic statement rather than a business decision for myriad creatives.
It was in this politicized environment that Aesop Rock stumbled into cult stardom, becoming a spokesperson for a generation of stoned college students jaded about career prospects. Aesop Rock never seemed comfortable atop a pedestal and his lyrical collages became increasingly opaque throughout the years. Now with an underground rap scene that’s heavily indebted to him and his contemporaries and much more relaxed and less rigid, Aesop has let his hair down and had fun with his music. None of his work epitomizes this as much as Hail Mary Mallon, a group he formed with fellow rapper/producer Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz. Their second album, Bestiary is a short and rambunctious romp that showcases both rappers’ chemistry and mic skill, proving even the most underground artists can still make great music to groove to.
Both Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic are tremendous rappers, twisting their rhymes into dense forests that sometimes become difficult to navigate. But on Bestiary, they focus less on individual showmanship and more on cohesion, playing off of each other perfectly, upping the stakes with each verse. Better still, this record bars no jokes. Rather than focusing on some kind of pseudo-intellectual commentary, Bestiary fills with witty lines and sight gags. The running story stringing the songs together, in itself, might induce chuckling: the group is organizing a benefit concert to save the local bowling alley, only to discover it’s been closed since the ’90s. Hail Mary Mallon acts as a kind of Run The Jewels act for Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic; a back to basics exercise that puts their talent on a transparent plane.
What helps the forthright tone of the album is the production. Co-produced by the two rappers, Bestiary constantly propels itself forward. There’s no time for either MC to catch his breath. It gives the project an immediate feel. Aesop has grown more confident as a producer and Bestiary bangs. “Kiln” hums with industrial energy, “Krill” sounds transplanted from a sci-fi chase scene, and “Used Cars” stutters along as if it’s an ’80s soundtrack gone awry. The two rappers demolish each beat but DJ Big Wiz turns out to be the revelation. Fulfilling the old school rule of the DJ not producing but actually rocking the turntables, Wiz takes the lost art of scratching and pulls it into the future. Scratching a record today usually elicits a nostalgic response; hearing it coexist with these beats means that it can exist now as well.
Bestiary was given its name because both Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic went into beast mode on each track. It certainly earns that title. Hail Mary Mallon is a rap group that’s inspired by the past but aims straight for the future.
4 out of 5
You can purchase Bestiary here.